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Let’s get hyperreal: Simulacra in gaming

When games recreate reality, how can we really know what’s real?

One of the most important elements of any game is immersion, the dissolutionment between reality and the virtual experience that brings us deeper into the game. Gameplay becomes much easier and “flows” when players spend a significant amount of time operating within a game’s systems. . We care and empathize with the characters and their struggles because we believe the narrative is truly occurring. When we are more engaged with and focused on what happens in our game than what happens around us, we are successfully immersed. The best games immerse players in the virtual world so successfully that they cease to be fictional places. Mass Effect brings us into an intragalactic adventure, while Grand Theft Auto V shows us a fictionalized, though no less “real,” Los Angeles. The developers want us to be a part of the world they’ve crafted so that we feel a sense of agency as our actions affect the events of the game. There is one game series, however, that bridges the gap between reality and virtuality in a different way, one series which understands that it is a simulacrum of reality. Rather than accepting its limitations as a game, Assassin’s Creed embraces its virtual nature and, by doing so, allows a unique interactive experience with its environments.

Simulacra, as defined by postmodern author Jean Baudrillard, are representations of reality. The concept assumes that there is a disconnect between actual reality and  the representations that influence our perception of the real phenomenon. This disconnect forces us to question why we privilege the real more than the representation, challenging and overturning our concepts of what we accept as “real”. Frankenstein’s monster is a popular simulacrum; a jumble of organs and extremities bound together that is able to imitate life. Is the monster any less alive than the man who created him? Or is Dr. Frankenstein truly the monster for raising an aberrant from the dead? Simulacra are not copies, but replications that become valid and “real” in their own way. They bridge the gap between reality and virtuality, creating an a state of indistinguishability between what is real and what is false, a hyperreality. Where the monster gains autonomy, intelligence, and a desire for retribution, the simulacra in Assassin’s Creed allow us to gain a new perspective on the cities in which we find ourselves and the historical eras in which they are situated.

The man, the myth, the legend.

The primary macguffin of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the Animus, a machine that is able to scan a user’s genetic data and allow them to experience the memories of a distant ancestor. The user, the real world player’s alternate persona, is taken through a machine that allows them  to explore the ancestor’s life and interact with a virtual facsimile of the past. In this way, the Animus actually parallels the video game console, generating what amounts to a new reality for the user. Yet, whether in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade or in London at the height of the Victorian era, we are integrated into a world that constantly reminds us of its digitized nature. We watch the landscape literally load around the user, the buildings and people coded into existence, and then we are free to explore a recreation of the past. A constant display keeps us informed of the character’s health and location as if we were within the Animus itself. Glitches can appear, hidden in the environment. We are transported into an incongruous virtual existence when performing a high-profile assassination. While most games attempt to fully integrate us into their realities, Assassin’s Creed reminds us that it is nothing more than a portrayal of the real world.

So nice of the guards to stop and let you have a conversation.

Most games struggle to hide their limitations in gameplay. Invisible walls, invulnerable quest-necessary NPCs, and respawning are often explained away in some convoluted fashion (or not even explained at all). These details, while often clever touches, invariably break the flow of the game and act as reminders that we are not, in fact, the great hero of space and time; we’re merely interacting with a virtual experience. Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, takes steps to remind us that it is a virtual reality. Inaccessible areas cannot be loaded without acquiring sufficient data first. Killing random civilians causes errors in the Animus, because the user did not act in the fashion of the ancestor. If the protagonist dies, the simulation has to be reloaded and restored to an earlier point, much like loading a save file. Assassin’s Creed presents the medium’s limitations proudly, incorporating them directly into the experience of the game. This brings the player into the world of the simulacrum more-so than hiding the limitations. It is the franchise’s commitment to this meta-awareness that helps the virtual nature of Assassin’s Creed to thrive.

Regardless of whether you’re playing Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto, exploring parallel worlds affects how we interact with their real-world counterparts. Our experience of modern-day Rome is greatly modified by the fact that, in a sense, we’ve already explored it during the 1500’s through Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.  Having grown up in Los Angeles, I was able to explore my hometown and surrounding neighborhoods in GTA V’s Los Santos, visiting locations analogous to UCLA or the Griffith Observatory. These simulacra, these recreations, give us new perspectives into our own existence, allowing us to view our settings in new and drastically different ways.

Driving around a recreation of the Pacific Coast Highway affords me a chance to traverse it in new (and often destructive) ways. Furthermore, when I return to that stretch of highway in real life, I’m aware of the potential chaos I would be able to cause were it a virtual space. This is the effect of well-crafted simulacra: it results in a simultaneous awareness of two realities intersecting each other.  I rethink the way I move about such a place, looking out for landmarks that were rebuilt in the game or attempting to find a fictionalized object in the real world. Our own reality, then, becomes a hyperreality, in which our experience with the virtual changes the way we experience the world. Even if this doesn’t directly influence the way we make or interact with games, it’s something interesting to consider: How real is our reality?

Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn’t collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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